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August 2, 2009

Does the death penalty process aggravate victim suffering?

This new AP article, headlined "Death-penalty cases harder on survivors than life sentences," prompts the question in this title of this post. Here are snippets from the piece:

As lawmakers weigh the future of the death penalty in some states, officials are giving greater weight to the effect of prolonged death-penalty cases on victims’ families. Commissions in New Jersey and Maryland in recent years found that death-penalty cases are more harmful to the families of victims than cases that end with life sentences.

“The commission finds that regardless of whether or not a survivor supports an execution, years of court dates, reversals, appeals and exposure to the killer is harmful to the family members of murder victims,” the Maryland commission wrote in its report last year. New Jersey repealed its death penalty in 2007, while Maryland has had a moratorium since 2006.

Across the country, relatives of murder victims say the plodding pace of a death-penalty case in court is difficult.

Phyllis Bricker of Baltimore has sat through 26 years of court hearings since her parents were murdered in 1983. Their killer, John Booth-El, remains on death row. “It’s hard on the family, very hard,” Bricker said. “Your life is on hold because you never know when another trial is coming up, another appeal is coming up.” One time, Bricker said, the defendant turned to her family and said “See you next year.”

Despite the protracted battle, Bricker said she does not favor a sentence of life without parole. She said that option did not exist at the time of the crime and she’s skeptical prisoners would be kept behind bars for life.

The Rev. Cathy Harrington’s daughter, Leslie Ann Mazzara, was killed in 2004 in California. A 2007 plea agreement was reached in which her convicted killer, Eric Copple, got life in prison. “I could see us exhaling,” Harrington said of her family at the sentencing. “I hadn’t realized how tense we were. I didn’t have any room to really grieve properly. I was so busy trying to get through this, never knowing when the phone rang who it was going to be.”

August 2, 2009 at 09:17 AM | Permalink


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Lawyer lawmakers make it impossible to execute people. Then, they use the stress on victim families of these lawyer enacted delay tactics as a pretext to abolish the death penalty. I am searching for the proper name of the brazenness of such nerve.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 2, 2009 10:52:57 AM

Yes, I agree with that assessment. It's bashing someone over the head with an ax and then claiming you're the victim because the sight of blood makes you sick.

Posted by: Daniel | Aug 2, 2009 1:54:08 PM

All court hearings, having to deal with the justice system at all, aggravate the suffering of a victim's family. This is the new anti death penalty mantra.

Just watching the maze that prosecutors have to go through to prove a murder case is enough to make any family member suffer. We suffer for justice for our loved ones. It is their last business on earth and no one else can speak for them. Every hearing, every appeal is worth it in the end to see a guilty party punished to the fullest extent of the law.

It is good to see you actually publish that the family here was skeptical prisoners would be kept behind bars for life.

A life sentence can be changed at anytime and as a victim's family member we must then suffer the fate of following that prisoner and his life behind bars, for the rest of our lives. Trying to get that information from corrections departments can also cause harm to the family. Knowing that the killer can be released by a Governor, changes to laws, or even escape is worse then all the hearings a death penalty case presents.

The death penalty is a just punishment for the taking of an innocent life and the death penalty is also a good deterrent and actually provides greater protection for the innocents.


Posted by: Patti March | Aug 2, 2009 2:01:46 PM

Patti: I hope you comment more often on this blog.

The lawyers need to hear from families of murder victims. They are heartless rent seekers, who owe their jobs to the criminal, and want nothing to happen, not even criticism.

If the criminal were to be punished and commit fewer crimes, they would lose their jobs. They have an irremediable conflict of interest.

I am interested in ending the immunities of governmental entities. These have safety as their number through 10 primary reason for being. Yet, the Supreme Court has stated, they are immune for their carelessness, incompetence, and even refusal to enforce a signed judge order protecting the murder victim from her abusive husband.

It is really bleak for the good guys like you.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 2, 2009 2:33:36 PM

"Patti: I hope you comment more often on this blog."

For the record, is there anyone out there who would say the same of SC?

It's pure propaganda to claim "The death penalty is a just punishment for the taking of an innocent life," presenting as fact a position that doesn't represent society's actual conceptions of "justice" in the real world. In Texas, for example, the nation's death penalty capital, in 2007 our prisons received 1,032 people convicted of homicide. Only 14 of those went to death row. (Source.) And Texas has jury sentencing, that's not the work of (rent-seeking?) judges.

Bottom line, the death penalty is a rarity even where it's most prolific and in the vast majority of cases is not viewed by juries as a "just punishment" for every innocent life taken. Mostly I agree with Doc Berman's frequently stated stance that it doesn't deserve remotely the amount of attention its given by opponents or proponents, either one. The death penalty in America is just not that important in the scheme of things.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Aug 2, 2009 4:03:36 PM


I happen to like that SC is passionate about something that does in fact need repair. Perhaps his passion is not directed in such a way that change will result from his outcry but at least he is aware that what we've got is in fact broken.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Aug 2, 2009 4:34:24 PM

Inmates who are serving a sentence of LWOP can file as many appeals as can an inmate on death row. The article makes it sound like a criminal defendant who is sentence to LWOP goes away, never to be heard from.

Posted by: justice seeker | Aug 2, 2009 5:00:26 PM

Grits: Not being a lawyer you do not know what is really going on. I invite you to enroll in law school. You will be shocked. Do you remember the shower scene in Psycho? It came out of nowhere with that bone chilling, nerve jangling, zinging, accompanying music. Every turn of the page of every law book does that to the awaiting reader. Every page is a shock to anyone modern.

The lawyers love me here. They have no greater friend. The ABA of 2109 will put up statues of me as the savior of the lawyer profession, the one that dragged it out of the 13th Century mire in which it is stuck.

No lawyer will have the courage to admit it out of fear. The hierarchy will destroy substantive dissent, and there is no recourse. Critical studies are not substantive dissent. They are proposed expansion of the scope of lawyer rent seeking, and explorations in innovative, but pretextual and false lawyer gotchas.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 2, 2009 6:49:32 PM

Grits: Juries audiences for a competing set of double Broadway productions. They laugh, they cry, they come out whistling the tune of the better production. Also Broadway audiences are not dragooned at gun point. They do not get locked up for arguing, nor for walking away, nor for asking to take notes. These are people desperate to get back their lives. They will do anything that abbreviates their torment.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Aug 2, 2009 6:58:54 PM

Inmates who are serving a sentence of LWOP can file as many appeals as can an inmate on death row.

Technically, that is true. As a practical matter, it is not, for a whole bunch of reasons. Inmates sentenced to death raise a host of appellate issues that those sentenced to LWOP do not. Moreover, courts whose jurisdiction is discretionary are far more inclined to take a case involving a death sentence.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Aug 3, 2009 8:18:07 AM

...the death penalty is also a good deterrent...

The death penalty is no deterrent at all. Only about 1% of murders lead to a death sentence, and it usually takes about 7-10 years for that sentence to be carried out (if it is at all). Moreover, those who commit death-eligible murders tend to have low intellectual function, poor impulse control, minimal education, and are not well versed in current affairs.

Can you imagine such a person stopping himself, and saying, “Hmmmm...if I do this, there's a 1% chance that I’ll be put to death 7-10 years from now. LWOP would be fine with me, but not death. I guess I’d better not do it.” The few studies purporting to find a deterrent effect are so obviously flawed they are laughable.

I suspect that for the DP to have a deterrent effect, we would need to execute at least half of all murderers, and we would need to carry out the sentence fairly promptly, so that even the most dim-witted murderers would realize the near-certain consequences.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Aug 3, 2009 8:27:27 AM

Marc Shepherd,

I agree with your posts. Among the reasons you left out for why there is far less litigation of LWOP sentences is the fact that it is much, much harder to get a lawyer to take such a case. There are organizations devoted to death-row representation (although even then there are still death-sentenced prisoners with pending deadlines and no lawyer, or who only get a lawyer a week or two before a filing deadline). I am aware of no organization devoted to lifer representation. Nor do I think they would proliferate, even if the death penalty disappeared.

If you got crappy representation and there are real questions about the fairness of your trial after the direct appeal, and you are on death row, you have a good chance of finding a pro bono lawyer to help you challenge your conviction. If you are not sentenced to death, good luck. Unless you have a very credible and accessible innocence claim, probably no one will be interested, and you will quickly run afoul of the short deadlines for state and federal postconviction challenges. You can file ineffectual, out-of-time pro se pleadings from prison for decades, but no court is likely to take them seriously (again, with the possible exception of a facially credible innocence claim).

Posted by: Observer | Aug 3, 2009 11:00:45 AM

Grits writes: "It's pure propaganda to claim "The death penalty is a just punishment for the taking of an innocent life,"

Of course it isn't pure or unpure propoganda. It is Patti's opinion. Grits, are you the kind of nincompoop who requires everyone to say, with every writing, "in my opinion" before realizing that statements are actually expressing individual opinion?

Many believe that the death penalty is a just punishment. Everyone already knows that not all people believe that. But it is kind of you to tell us, anyway.

Evidently, you are unaware, that very few murders are death penalty eligible, capital murders, as you listed the 1032 incarcerated in Texas in 2007 for "homicide", with only 14 going to death row.

How many of the 1032 were death penalty eligible?

The rarity of the death penalty, does not preclude that it is also just and appropriate or that it should not be applied to more murders.

Apparently, based upon rarity, Grits says: "The death penalty in America is just not that important in the scheme of things."

Many things are rare, but of great importance. We all know that. So Grits makes a statement for all of us, which was dead wrong. Oh, that's right,the "not that important in the scheme of things" was just Grit's opinion.

Never mind.

It might be that the death penalty, although rare, is very important in the scheme of things. That would explain why it is such a common and heavily debated issue.

There are matters of justice, responsibility, innocence guilt, absolute punishment, death, eternity, religion, rehabilitation, redemption, race, class, government power, error, certainty, morality, and on and on.

It is very much, a pillar, in the philosphical, moral and social debate, for all of those reasons. It is, integral, to the scheme of things, in that regard.

Grits, if it mattered little, in the scheme of things, we, you, wouldn't be talking about it.

But, of course, that's just my opinion.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Aug 3, 2009 11:09:27 AM

If a family member got murdered, I would hope that I would bear any burden to see a death sentence carried out.

Posted by: federalist | Aug 3, 2009 12:57:43 PM

Of course the death penalty deters.

All prospects of a negative outcome/conseqence deters some. There is no exception.

The only thing we won't be able to agree to is how much it deters.

Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Aug 3, 2009 7:22:33 PM

Anyway, it's an individual deterrent since an executed murderer has certainly been deterred from murdering again.

Posted by: Alpino | Aug 4, 2009 4:01:13 AM

As a physician, now retired after several life threatening medical disorders, turned author when faced with the facts about capital punishment, I have the deepest empathy for those families losing a loved one to violence and their attempts to work through the process of justice and "closure." I do not believe that "closure" is possible as the effects are long-term and life-long. Having lost my mother at 14 years old I know first hand the experience. But I also believe that killing the killer is not the "best" way to bring matters of justice to an end, but only a prolonged period of suffering for both the victim's and the perpetrator’s families to endure. All too often, once the execution occurs, the feelings of "At last" are supplanted within a few days with "Well, what has really changed." Coupling that with a 70% divorce rate further aggravates the matter. On the other hand, there is an opportunity to do something "good," not something that the killer did by killing, but through forgiveness. The Christian perspective here allows one to really "follow Jesus" by loving and forgiving your enemies, praying for their salvation, and striving for restoration and reconciliation with not only the criminal but with life itself. Arguments that the DP is a better option than LWOP is a non sequitur as it is not a better deterrent, costs society millions of dollars to enact, and winds up with only 0.79% of murderers executed. How do we get by with the other 99.21% not executed and 12 states get by without the DP. We must look inward to see what we are after and make sure it is not vengeance, but justice. As well, if we are going to execute, the paradigm by which we do must be done justly, something that it is not today. Only if you are poor, black, or Latino do you get to death row. My prayers will continue for all those who suffer from violence and heartfelt wishes toward resolution and peace.

Posted by: justifier1 | Aug 4, 2009 12:35:58 PM

very good x

Posted by: sophie powlle | Oct 6, 2009 4:14:03 AM

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